The moral grey of Hell or High Water

In the last scene of Hell or High Water, an oil rig rocks back and forth in the background of a conversation between a Texas Ranger and a Criminal. The drill moves like an inverted rocking chair — the kind we imagine a lawman might lounge in once he settles into retirement. If he ever gets there. The pair stand upon the Comancheria, also called the Great Plains, the setting and the underpinning for this story.

A piece on Hell or High Water (2016) originally published on October 4, 2016, on medium.com.

In the last scene of Hell or High Water, an oil rig rocks back and forth in the background of a conversation between a Texas Ranger and a Criminal. The drill moves like an inverted rocking chair — the kind we imagine a lawman might lounge in once he settles into retirement. If he ever gets there. The pair stand upon the Comancheria, also called the Great Plains, the setting and the underpinning for this story.

Land of the Comanche, of European settlers, now of small town Texan folk. Folk who seem to have been forgotten from the mainstream, still reeling from a recession that was kinder to Texas than most states, but who’s recovery has been even slower. White people own this land now, and they are reaping what they have sowed. The Comanche, Kings of the Plains, have been relegated to the felt green of the poker table. The Plains serve the interest of capital now; the pillaging of non-renewable resources so that the world may have gas and light is man’s chance for deliverance.


Sheridan’s screenplay is a tightly wound coil, from the first moment the camera snaps into the kinetic energy of a chase destined to happen. It’s not sly, but it’s absent wasted moments. We meet the Howard brothers before we know their faces, catching only their eyes. Perhaps, David Mackenzie’s direction seems to suggest, that’s all we need to know. The first scene introduces the Howard brothers as amateur bank robbers aiming at towns quiet enough that the post-clocking-in pre-morning coffee moment seems like unsettled territory. Their escape from the first stickup is an exhilarating joyride, and the camera hangs outside their car, giving us access to their conversation but not the brothers’ bond. Lens glare litters the frame, and we almost squint to look out to the flat land over which they make their first getaway.

It’s for a good cause. Toby Howard (Pine) is a man looking to do right for his kids, something like redemption for having screwed up everything else in his life. Pine plays him stoically, though his blue eyes radiate brightness, kindness, and determination in varying quantities. Tanner Howard (Foster) is an unrepentant criminal who has somehow managed to evade a jail cell for a year, and who is only too happy to join his brother’s plan to rob small town banks. These banks belong, not incidentally, to the same branch working to purchase the family homestead — the Howards’ only lifeline for a future out of poverty. The movie revels in that moral gray area, flattening right and wrong into a line as flat as the Texan horizon. But where does self-preservation give way to greed? And what will be left after the Howard brothers have smudged the boundary?

Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who doesn’t know how to exist outside his occupation. He’s an old racist with no life, but an astute cop. “Get a hobby,” his half-Comanche half-Mexican partner, tells him. Alberto (Birmingham) seems to be Hamilton’s only friend, though the latter interprets bonding as hazing about his brown partner’s heritage. Alberto’s discomfort with Marcus’s humor is at odds with how easily they otherwise reside in each other’s company. Maybe he’s just waiting for the old gringo to retire.

Marcus is not just old, but old-school and he’s determined to close what will probably be his last big case, though glory doesn’t seem to play into it; it’s not the letter of the law either, which High Water never treats with a straight face, but he is concerned with justice or something that smells like it. But even that is nebulous. After a particularly reckless lunch & stickup combo on Tanner’s part, the Ranger lets his tunnel vision and rough manner alienate a potential lead. To a waitress losing Toby’s $200 tip to evidence, there’s no family resemblance between justice and law.


Cowboy and Indian. Settler and Native. Marcus and Alberto are the old world and the new, but they’re also both officers of the State. Though it’s soon clear the badge, like the law, is not everything in the small towns of West Texas. Vigilante justice, the good man with the gun, are just as essential to protecting the town from outside threats — whether they wear cowboy boots or suits. Black people don’t exist here, and Indians are all but relegated to reservations in Oklahoma. Giles Nuttgen’s wide lens captures the expansive flatness of Texas. Characters are often forced towards the edge of the screen as the prize of manifest destiny takes center stage.

If Hell of High Water has a flaw, it’s how it embraces the issues of White men [Settlers] uncritically. The film’s script moves as stoically as its characters, without room for heartfelt monologues that might reveal interiority to a character like Alberto. We hear of a wife but know nothing about where he came from or what he wants. Though shocking, his death is merely a vehicle that propels Marcus to the top of the mountain. The Native’s death allows Marcus to be a hero, it isolates him as he traverses into retirement, and crystallizes him into vendetta. Alberto is a foil for his White partner and a testament to the success of Westward Expansion. What does it mean that the only brown person we see outside of a casino is an officer? Genocide and stolen land are juxtaposed with assimilation. The seizure of land and culture are inextricable, and both are erased. Thus poverty and alcoholism are untethered from colonial causes and become harmless jokes. The badge does not give Alberto access to subjectivity or his death meaning.

Similarly, this allows the poor whites of West Texas to assume the role of oppressed. Once the Native is removed, the filial [White] class struggle can continue and be redeemed; we are absolved from taking a side or condemning violence. High Water can remain in this perceived moral gray area. When Toby explains how the Howard brothers grew up immersed in poverty, their land ownership is unremarkable. But land means opportunity to build wealth and keep it, to pass something on to your children. Accordingly, Toby does not directly kill anyone, though his decisions lead to the death of others. It is Trevor who kills, and who suggests they target the riskier bank. It is Trevor who dies, wiping the slate clean. Toby’s sins prod viewers to consider whether the ends justify the means, but the question of right to land itself is taken for granted.

Alberto’s blood cannot be erased. It seeps into the ground where he falls. It makes the land possible, for Toby to pass on to his kids, for Marcus to chase him until he dies. The camera’s final move is to drop into the weeds; the Plains still exist, though oil rigs and paved highways cover them like scars. In the final scene a Ranger and a Criminal reaffirm their antagonism, their conflict will go on as it always has. The Cowboy is retired and Indian dead. In the background, the large metal rig pumping black gold from the ground rocks back and forth. Moving but staying in the same place.

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